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Annual Funding Gap for Making the Nation's Public School Buildings Safer, Healthier and Fit for Learning Balloons to $85 Billion

Published 09-08-21

Submitted by International WELL Building Institute

2021 State of our Schools Poster

New report from the 21st Century School Fund, the International WELL Building Institute and the National Council on School Facilities shows massive underinvestment in education facilities, identifies solutions to achieve healthier, more sustainable elementary and secondary schools

NEW YORK, September 8, 2021 /CSRwire/ – The 2021 State of Our Schools Report: America’s PK-12 Public School Facilities, released today by the 21st Century School Fund, the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) and the National Council on School Facilities, projects that the United States faces a projected shortfall of a staggering $85 billion in school facility funding every year. Districts are spending about $110 billion every year on maintenance, operations, and capital construction – but the educational facilities standards for good stewardship necessitates nearly $195 billion. The rise in the nation’s PK-12 gap has been brought on by increased school construction costs, building inventory increases, and a sharp decline in facility expenditures after the great recession.

All this despite extraordinary efforts on the part of local communities and states to deliver public school buildings that help protect the health and safety of the students, teachers and staff who walk through their doors every day.

“In our last report in 2016, we saw an annual gap of $46 billion in school facilities funding--$60 billion in today’s construction dollars” said Mary Filardo, executive director, 21st Century School Fund and lead author of the report. “Unfortunately, while local districts are struggling with making facilities safe in a pandemic, they are faced with longstanding deficiencies in their aging infrastructure which makes this very difficult.”

In the United States, PK-12 school facilities are the second largest sector of public infrastructure spending behind only highways. However, unlike transportation infrastructure, which has most of its capital costs paid from federal and state sources, in most states local school districts individually bear the heaviest responsibilities for school construction capital funding. Nationally, local districts cover 77 percent of school facility costs, with only 22 percent coming from states. Schools received just over 1 percent from federal funds ($7.1 billion) for school construction between 2009 and 2019. One third of these federal funds came from FEMA to aid schools after natural disasters.

The U.S. system for funding capital construction projects for public school facilities is no longer sustainable. “While states and the federal government contribute roughly 45 percent and 10 percent respectively, to school districts’ annual operating costs, the capital investment required to build and modernize buildings falls most heavily on local districts and taxpayers,” said Rachel Hodgdon, president and CEO of IWBI. “If the financial resources in the community aren’t there, new construction rarely gets funded. Where our children learn matters, and access to safe, healthy and equitable learning environments should be a right, not a privilege.”

The data from this report shows that the system is broken and has been for decades. Local districts held nearly half a trillion dollars in long-term debt at the end of fiscal year 2019. This represents a national average of slightly more than $11,000 per student. The poorest districts, particularly small and rural ones, cannot even afford to borrow capital to address their aging facilities.

The $85 Billion Gap

Across the nation, local school districts work hard to deliver healthy and safe public school facilities that offer suitable learning environments. They support ongoing operations and maintenance in annual operating budgets and invest in buildings and grounds construction and improvements in capital budgets. But every year the shortfall increases in both budgets, leaving school districts unprepared to provide adequate and equitable school facilities.

The $85 billion gap between what is needed for good stewardship and what districts and states have done occurs both in capital outlays and operations and maintenance.

  • Annually, U.S. public school districts spent an average of $54.1 billion on capital improvements from fiscal year 2009 to 2019 (in 2020 dollars), leaving a capital investment gap of $57.4 billion.
  • Annually, the United States spent an average of $56 billion on facilities operations and maintenance, leaving a maintenance and operations gap of $27.6 billion.

“Closing these annual funding gaps must be a top priority. We have Title 1 for the classroom. We need a Title 1 for school facilities as well. This will ensure that all public schools meet modern standards for health, safety, learning, and environmental sustainability and resiliency,” said Juan Mireles, president, National Council on School Facilities and director of facilities and transportation services, California Department of Education. “Too many of our schools are just old and worn out, with inadequate ventilation for clean air, which is a must during this pandemic. The recent 2020 GAO study on the condition of our nation’s public schools found that thousands of school districts have at least half of their schools in need of updates or replacements of key building systems or features.”

The Astounding Inequity

When comparing the funding for school districts across socioeconomic, race, ethnicity and location, the disparities were profound. On average, school districts with high levels of economically disadvantaged students spent less per school than well-off suburban communities. These structural inequities are also found in and often compounded by racial and ethnic composition and the locations of the districts. Rural districts serving high poverty public school communities have funded capital improvements at almost half the level of the national average—$2.3 million on average per school compared to $4.3 million per school. 

“This is another area where those who have the least suffer the most,” said Hodgdon. “Schools that are in a state of disrepair—suffering from poor indoor air quality due to lack of ventilation and proper filtration and compromised water quality—are often in the most disadvantaged communities. These schools weren’t sufficient before the pandemic; today, in many cases, they are just plain dangerous.”

The Health, Performance and Economic Impact

With more than one-sixth of the entire U.S. population inside PK–12 public school buildings each weekday, modernizing and replacing old public schools can have a major impact on the health and performance of both students and staff. These efforts can also enable communities to conserve land, energy and water, reduce carbon emissions, and in the face of climate change, protect lives and reduce the level of relief funding needed following disasters.

“At Carrier, we’re committed to creating enhanced learning environments that have been shown to improve the health, well-being and cognitive function of students and staff,” said Greg Alcorn, vice president, Healthy Buildings, Carrier, a platinum sponsor of the report. “This report shines a light on long-standing deficiencies and needs for air quality and safety upgrades in many of our schools, and also the opportunity that with the right strategies in place, a healthier and safer indoor environment can be achieved.”

Looking to the Future

The report found that if school districts across the nation dedicated 15 percent of their recent Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds to addressing the crisis of school facilities conditions in low wealth and high need communities, they would have about $30 billion over the next three years to reduce deferred maintenance and make their schools healthier and safer.

Congress is currently considering additional funding to address long standing facilities deficiencies. If there was $130 billion of federal funding dedicated to rebuilding America’s schools, it could close the capital investment gap by about 22 percent over 10 years. Federal funding is the only way many low-wealth and high-need districts will be able to bring their PK-12 schools into the 21st century.

“The status quo is unsustainable. This report provides Congress and state leaders with a roadmap to address these daunting challenges to rebuild our nation’s schools for communities and families today and for generations to come,” says Filardo.

In support of the launch of the 2021 State of our Schools Report, more than 30 non-profit organizations, education associations and businesses have joined in to help make the data in the report widely available. To dive deeper into the data cited here as well as to find more detail about the conditions of schools in each state, please visit stateofourschools2021.org.    

What Other Supporters Are Saying about the 2021 State of our Schools Report

“Our mission at Delos is to improve health and well-being in indoor environments and we see schools as one of the most critical, particularly given the tremendous challenges we continue to face with COVID-19 and the pervasive issue of aging and inadequate infrastructure at far too many schools,” said Paul Scialla, founder and CEO of Delos and founder of the International WELL Building Institute. “Delos is proud to sponsor this report as part of our ongoing effort to help improve the quality of classroom environments, protect the health of students and faculty, and create spaces where children can thrive.”

“AASA is proud to support the 2021 State of Our Schools Report which finds the nation’s public school facilities in crisis, grappling with essential maintenance and capital improvements that are chronically underfunded. Adequate investment in our schools is critical: school facilities have a direct impact on student learning, student and staff health, and school finances. We commend the report for being both direct and succinct, highlighting the scope of the public school facilities crisis, the long history of chronic underinvestment, inequity in capital improvements and disparity in school construction funding sources,” Daniel A. Domenech, executive Director, AASA, The School Superintendents Association

“The State of Our Schools Report shines a light on the unacceptable conditions facing many of our nation’s schools – especially in underserved and low-income communities, which widens social inequities,” said Donny Simmons, president, Commercial HVAC Americas, Trane Technologies. “Giving students and teachers healthier school buildings should be one of our highest priorities, and urgent action is needed. The science, funding and innovation are within reach to create healthier, more comfortable and sustainable learning environments that set schools and communities up for lasting success.”

“Five years after the last State of Our Schools Report, the deficits have grown and the same hard truth remains. If the condition of a community’s school facility is dependent on the local tax base, as almost all are, the conditions across our nation’s schools will remain inequitable,” says Anisa Heming, director of the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council. “It doesn’t have to be this way. With federal and state contributions, every child’s school could be an inspiring, safe and resilient learning environment that protects the health of its occupants, its community and the planet.”

“What are we saying to poor children and school personnel when we send them back into school facilities that don’t have good circulation - even with masks these are dangerous situations - do their lives matter? When will America commit to a comprehensive plan to educate children in facilities and with the tools they need to function in a 21st century economy. Our strength as a nation rests with the outcomes for these children today,” Oleta Fitzgerald, regional administrator, Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative for Economic and Social Justice (SRBWI)

“Creating opportunities for educational success for all students is critical and that starts with healthier, safer and more equitable learning environments,” said Doug Wright, president and CEO, Honeywell Building Technologies. “Closing gaps in school facility funding should be a top priority. The technology and capability exist; collective action at all levels must follow.”

“The Association for Learning Environments (A4LE) applauds and is a proud supporting organization for the National Council on School Facilities, the 21st Century School Fund, and the International Well Building Institute with their efforts to create this report. A4LE’s mission is leading the innovation at the intersection of learning and place and our members strive for equitable and high performing school facilities for all learners and in particular, those in underserved communities. It is vital that our focus continues to bring America’s schools into a state of excellence and equity,” Philip Poinelli, chair of the board, A4LE, SMMA

“Successful and effective learning demands that students, teachers and support staff all have a safe, healthy and welcoming environment and there is much work to do to achieve that goal equitably nationwide. The State of our Schools Report provides clear and compelling evidence of the challenges to our education system. At Johnson Controls, we are fully committed to bringing our healthy buildings expertise and capabilities together with the important work of the National Council on School Facilities, the 21st Century School Fund and IWBI to promote the WELL Building Standard. This partnership helps ensure critical infrastructure upgrades are undertaken wisely and effectively to benefit students and educators in every type of community across the nation,” George Oliver, chairman and CEO, Johnson Controls

"State of Our Schools 2021 forces us to face a national problem we ignore at our children's peril: too many of our public schools are in crumbling buildings that undermine health and achievement. The gap in investment for good stewardship of our school buildings is growing. Not surprisingly, lower income children and communities face the biggest hurdles. School districts, states and the federal government need to forge new partnerships to renew these important community assets, together," Jeff Vincent, PhD, director, public infrastructure initiatives, Center for Cities + Schools, University of California, Berkeley

“The airborne pandemic has laid bare the devastating inequities in our nation’s schools. School occupants are primarily women and children and the facilities are more densely occupied than nursing homes. The poorest communities hardest hit by the pandemic – Black, LatinX and Native American - endure the worst facilities. To heal the nation, Congress must invest in the capacity of states, tribes, and schools to sustain healthful indoor air/environments and it must invest in the wise rebuilding of public school infrastructure so that schools become both pandemic- and climate-resilient,” Claire L. Barnett, MBA, executive director, Healthy Schools Network

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About 21st Century School Fund

21st Century School Fund is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1994 to build the public will and the public capacity for modernized public school facilities. 21CSF is a well-respected and relied-upon source of research, policy analysis and technical assistance for communities, school districts and states on the public engagement, policies and practices that support the delivery of healthy, safe and educationally appropriate K–12 public school facilities.

About National Council on School Facilities

The National Council on School Facilities is the nonprofit association of state K–12 public school facilities leaders. Its mission is to support states in their varied roles and responsibilities for the delivery of safe, healthy, and educationally appropriate school facilities that are sustainable and fiscally sound. NCSF engages in research and development and works to represent the states’ perspectives and experience regarding effective policy, planning, practice, regulation, finance, and management of school facilities. By leveraging state knowledge through collaboration and the elimination of duplicate efforts, the Council saves time and public resources.

About the International WELL Building Institute

The International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) is a public benefit corporation and the world’s leading organization focused on deploying people first places to advance a global culture of health. The WELL Building Standard anchors a WELL ecosystem that includes WELL v2, the WELL Community Standard, the WELL Health-Safety Rating and WELL Accredited Professionals. IWBI mobilizes its community through the pursuit of applicable research, the development of educational resources, and advocacy for policies that promote health and well-being for everyone, everywhere. More information on WELL can be found here.

International WELL Building Institute pbc is a wholly owned subsidiary of Delos Living LLC. International WELL Building Institute, IWBI, the WELL Building Standard, WELL v2, WELL Certified, WELL AP, WELL Portfolio, WELL Portfolio Score, The WELL Conference, We Are WELL, the WELL Community Standard, WELL Health-Safety Rating, WELL Health-Safety Rated, WELL Health-Equity, WELL Performance Rating, WELL Performance Rated, WELL Performance, WELL and others, and their related logos are trademarks or certification marks of International WELL Building Institute pbc in the United States and other countries.

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Media Contact:
Marisa Long, marisa@inspireprgroup.com, 412-877-7592

International WELL Building Institute Logo

International WELL Building Institute

International WELL Building Institute

The International WELL Building Institute™ (IWBI™) is a public benefit corporation whose mission is to improve human health and well-being through the built environment. IWBI administers the WELL Building Standard™ (WELL) – a performance-based system for measuring, certifying, and monitoring features of buildings that impact the health and well-being of the people who live, work, and learn in them. IWBI was established pursuant to a Clinton Global Initiative commitment to improve the way people live by developing spaces that enhance occupant health and quality of life by sharing the WELL Building Standard globally. www.wellcertified.com

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